For last year’s Begorrathon, I read Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine. I sat in a parking lot and cried when I read the last 30 pages or so. For this year’s Begorrathon, I read O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, cried again, and can now safely say that O’Farrell knows exactly how to tug on my heartstrings (or, as Naomi would say, that she gets stuff).
The book begins with Esme in the 1930s. Esme and her sister Kitty spent their early childhood in India; the family doesn’t return to Scotland until the girls’ little brother dies during the cholera epidemic that gripped India back then. Esme is the only one in her family to witness both her brother’s death and that of their nanny. She is naturally deeply affected by this event, but her parents do not want to speak about it. It doesn’t help that Esme is different in other ways as well. Unlike her sister, and to the despair of her mother and grandmother, Esme doesn’t understand why etiquette should be important. She doesn’t care about clothes and doesn’t want to marry, but she would love to continue going to school. Esme and Kitty were close as children, with Kitty often covering for Esme to prevent her from getting into trouble. But as the girls grow up, Kitty is more and more bewildered by Esme’s unusual behavior, and when she falls in love with a young man who is interested in Esme instead, the sisters’ relationship quickly deteriorates.
In present-day Edinburgh, Iris gets a call out of the blue informing her that the mental institution where Esme spent the last 60 years is closing. Iris doesn’t know anyone named Esme, and she’s not sure she wants to be bothered finding out what is going on. She is busy running the store she owns and figuring out how to extricate herself from a relationship with a married man that threatens to become too serious. The only person who could tell Iris about Esme is her grandmother Kitty, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Against the advice of her stepbrother, Iris decides to take in Esme for a little while, because when she visits Esme in the mental institution, Esme doesn’t seem all that crazy.
Told in flashbacks and interwoven with Kitty’s fragmented memories, the story of how Esme and Iris are connected slowly untangles itself. It is a story of rape, rage, revenge, and ultimately an unusual woman whose only “crime” was the fact that she didn’t fit into society’s idea of how a woman should behave. There is much heartbreak to be found, and what I found saddest is the fact that Iris has exactly the life that Esme could have had, had she only been born 35 years later.
Like The Hand That First Held Mine, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is beautifully written. The writing is strong, with beautiful imagery. Combine that with characters who are different but still easy to relate to, and you get me: a fan who can hardly wait to read the next of O’Farrell’s books.
The girl takes her to lunch in a café out on the far point of North Berwick. They sit outside on a planked platform and Iris mashes butter into Esme’s baked potato for her. Esme is amused that she does this without asking, but she doesn’t mind. Seagulls rip up the briny air with their cries.
“I used to come to the pool here when I was little,” Iris says, as she holds out the fork for Esme.
Again, Esme has to hide her smile. Then she sees that Iris is looking at the lines that criss-cross her arm and Esme takes the fork and turns her arm so that the lines, pursed white mouths, are facing the floor. She enters the zoetrope, briefly, catching a glimpse of Kitty on their swing in India, their mother lying on the bed in Lauder Road. Bun then she remembers she has to talk, to speak, and pulls herself out. “Did you?” she says. “I always wanted to, but we never did. My mother didn’t approve of communal bathing.”
Esme looks at the blank stretch of concrete, which has been poured over the pool, then at the other tables. People eating, in the sunshine, on a Saturday. Is it possible for life to be this simple?